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The quaint city of Wells in Somerset is home to the spectacular Wells Cathedral with its breathtaking West Front.
But, if you head inside this 12th-century wonder you will be stunned by what’s in store for you.
One of the highlights is the astronomical Wells Cathedral Clock, which is currently the world’s oldest working clock with a dial. It’s also the second oldest clock in England.
Although this curious clock’s beginnings are shrouded in an air of mystery. Today, it delights visitors every quarter of an hour with a unique chime show!
Here’s a complete guide with the history, fun facts, and how to see it for yourself.
What is the ancient clock of Wells Cathedral?
The Wells Cathedral Clock is an astronomical clock that sits in the North Transept of the cathedral.
The central dial is a model of the universe and it has a background of stars. The sun moves in a circle around the clock’s face and indicates the time.
The time is marked in Roman numerals from I to XII and then from I to XII again. The minutes are indicated by smaller stars.
The inner circle of the clock has a moon dial and the pointer represents the moon phases over the lunar month. You can also see a small painting of Pheobe symbolising the moon.
In the central dial, you can see a ball that represents the earth and is surrounded by clouds!
As this clock was made in 14th-century, people believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe. This was around a century before Copernicus discovered that the sun was the centre of our solar system.
At each corner of the clock, you can see an angel holding one of the four cardinal winds.
If you look above the clock to the right, you’ll get a glimpse of Jack Blandifers or the Quarter Jack who chimes a bell with his hammer. After, he taps two bells with his heels.
How old is Wells Cathedral Clock?
There are no exact records of when this clock was made however it is assumed that it was constructed in Wells cathedral in the late 14th century.
The earliest mention of the cathedral clock was in 1392 when payments were made to the Keeper of the Great Clock.
There are theories that Bishop Ralph Erghum was the one who thought of installing a clock here when he moved from Salisbury to Wells in 1388.
He had installed a clock in Salisbury Cathedral in 1386 and so he could have brought the clockmakers with him to install one in Wells Cathedral too.
This makes the clock well over 600 years old!
Although it has had a few renovations made to it over time, this clock is currently the second oldest clock in England. It also has a claim to be the world’s oldest working clock with a dial.
The battle of the world’s oldest clocks!
The record holder for the oldest clock in England is currently Salisbury Cathedral. Their clock was installed in 1386 by the order of Bishop Ralph Erghum.
However, there is a heated ongoing debate by Wells Cathedral as to whether they are the ones that should own the title of the oldest clock in England today.
The argument lies in what makes a clock a clock and the Salisbury Cathedral clock has not functioned with a dial or hands for well over 50 years now.
Many ask, is Salisbury’s clock even a clock at all? A clock without its hand or dial is just a pretty face! Or not, as most of Salisbury’s clock is just the movement mechanism today.
Both Wells and Salisbury Cathedral clocks are around the same age by a few years. However, there are no exact records so no one can be sure!
I guess we’ll have to see how it plays out with the battle of the clocks.
However, it’s safe to say that this clock is one of the oldest working clocks in the entire world today. Plus, Wells do hold the record for the oldest surviving astronomical clock face in the world.
Who made Wells Cathedral Clock?
The truth is, nobody knows for sure who built this amazing cathedral clock!
There are limited records from this time period and so the creator still remains a mystery to this day.
Bishop Ralph Erghum is most certainly the one that facilitated the clocks to be installed in both Salisbury and Wells in the 14th century.
There are also some brief records for payments made to the Keeper of the Great Clock. However, the clockmaker is never mentioned.
In the 16th-century, the antiquarian John Leland claimed that the clock was made by Peter Lightfoot who was a monk of Glastonbury Abbey.
Many say that the clock was removed from Glastonbury Abbey and re-installed in Wells Cathedral. But, recent research suggests that Lightfoot was hired by Bishop Erghum to build the clock in Wells itself.
The curious history of Wells Cathedral Clock
Since this clock was installed in the cathedral over 600 years ago, it has had a rich and diverse history over the centuries!
The original mechanism had a few replacements made. Firstly, the clock mechanism was replaced with a pendulum and anchor in the 17th century.
Then, it was replaced with a new movement in 1884 and both of the clocks in Wells cathedral still run on this movement today.
The original Wells Clock mechanism was moved to the London Science Museum in 1884 and that is still wound by hand for visitors. It’s the museum’s most cherished exhibit and you can see it on display!
A tradition that was upheld in Wells was that the astronomical clock had to be wound by hand three times a week by the Keeper of the Great Clock.
The job required each of the 250kg weights to be cranked over 800 times with an iron key! The process took over two hours.
Paul Fisher was the last Keeper who retired in 2010 when the cathedral installed an electric motor to wind the clock. The Fisher family were Keepers of the Great Clock for almost 100 years since 1919!
When does the clock chime & what does it do?
The Wells Cathedral clock chimes every 15 minutes throughout the day.
When the clock hands strike the quarter-hour, the Quarter Jack called Jack Blandifers rings his bell from the very top of the cathedral.
Afterward, just above the clock, knights spin around on horses with their jousting sticks!
It’s only a short show but one that’s well worth waiting for. As they are every quarter of an hour, you won’t have to wait long to see the next chime.
I would recommend getting your camera ready just before the chime if you want to capture the whole show on video. It’s quite quick and is over in around 30 seconds.
See the quick video below of the chime show!
Don’t forget to see the outside clock too!
The Wells Cathedral Clock comes in two parts. The inside facade and the outside one can be found near the entrance to Vicar’s Close and directly opposite the Mendip Museum.
The two clocks work in tandem with each other. Although the outside clock was installed 70 years after the one inside.
Just like the inside facade, the clock on the outside chimes every fifteen minutes.
It only has two knights banging the bells this time above the clock. They are stood up, not on horses and there is no Jack Blandifers to chime the quarter-hour in either.
But, it’s worth stopping to admire it awhile on a cathedral tour.
Fun Facts about Wells Cathedral Clock
- The original mechanism for the Wells Cathedral Clock lives in London’s Science Museum. It is still wound by hand to this day.
- It’s the second oldest clock in England and the world’s oldest surviving clock that still functions with a dial today
- The gorgeous astronomical clock face is the oldest in the world. It’s even older than the famous Prague Astronomical Clock that was built in 1410.
- No one knows for sure who built this clock! Although people think it may have been the monk Peter Lightfoot from Glastonbury Abbey
- Jack Blandifers is also known as Quarter Jack who sits 30 feet high in Wells Cathedral above the clock. He holds a hammer in his hand and rings a bell. The name for him may have derived from the French word ‘Jacke’. The Jacke being a tool used by steeplejacks who built church towers.
Explore the magnificent Wells cathedral!
Once you’ve seen the clock chime, there are plenty more things to see and do in this impressive 12th-century cathedral.
On your way over to the clock, you’ve probably already seen the cathedral nave with its vaulted ceiling and arches!
Just behind the clock is the impressive curved stairway leading up to the magnificent Chapter House with its colourful stained glass windows.
The Scissor Arches that make a figure of eight is a beautiful sight and the vaulted Lady’s/Stillington Chapel is magnificent.
The cathedral also has a library, cafe, and gardens within The Cloisters to enjoy. It’s huge, so leave lots of time to explore.
Wells Cathedral opening times
If you wanted to visit Wells Cathedral and see the oldest working clock in the world for yourself, you can visit in Somerset all year!
It’s open from 11 am – 3.45 pm Monday through Saturday and 12 pm – 2 pm on Sundays.
Note: Wells Cathedral clock will not chime during services or Evensong. So, make sure to plan your visit outside of Worship and Music times if this is something you wanted to see!
Are you looking for more things to do in Wells?
There are plenty of things to do in this amazing tiny cathedral city! Just beyond the cathedral, you can visit the gorgeous Vicar’s Close, the oldest residential street in Europe.
If you head out of the Penniless Porch by Cathedral Green you’ll come across the Market Square.
If the weather is nice lots of the local cafés and pubs have outdoor seating where you can enjoy a coffee or brunch. Roly’s Fudge Pantry also serves up some scrumptious ice cream cones with fudge crumbs.
If you walk through the adjoining Bishop’s Eye gate you’ll eventually reach Bishop’s Palace. This is where the Bishop of Wells has lived for over 800 years!
Even if you don’t wish to go inside, a walk around its defensive moat is impressive and you’ll find the Bishop’s Barn at the Recreational Park.
Or, head on over to St Cuthbert’s Church with the Artisan Quarter nearby.